Mrs. Takahashi’s Inn

Our volunteer info page has brought Socks for Japan several good people from around the world, including Joe Walch from Kansas City and Shufang Ho from Singapore. By chance, I met on our May 21 distribution to Higashi Matsushima an American photojournalist named Stuart Palley, who asked if he could join one of our distributions to take pictures for his portfolio. I said yes. Thus staffed up, we prepared a distribution to Onagawa on May 25 for Joe, Shufang, and Stuart to accompany day-trip manager Naoko and me.

Part of Joe’s interest in helping us was that he was an exchange-student to Ishinomaki Technical High School a few years back. We’ve distributed socks and letters many times to Ishinomaki. Joe saw that in our reports, which is what first prompted him to ask about helping us. As a special surprise for him, our magnificent researcher, Takako, contacted Joe’s school and made arrangements for us to visit there with socks for survivors now attending the school. Once the plan was set, we added the stop at the front of our Onagawa itinerary and told Joe the good news. He couldn’t wait to reunite with his former teachers and even his former host mother, about whom he couldn’t find enough words of praise.

The school principal and staff were so happy to have Joe back that they announced his return with a sign at the entrance. Prior to seeing that, just re-entering the familiar area around the school brought a rush of memories back to Joe. He shook with anticipation while describing for all of us the way he used to go to school and where he hung out with friends. By the time we reached the entrance with the sign and met the principal and some of Joe’s former teachers, Joe was overcome with emotion.

Later, his host mother arrived, and Stu and I caught Joe’s reunion with her from opposite sides.

We couldn’t forget our mission, though, and got busy distributing socks and letters to students who had lost their homes and, in some cases, family members in the earthquake and tsunami. It’s good to see them back in school, where they can feel a sense of normalcy during the day and find good spirits among their friends.

We left extra socks for students who could not receive any directly from us. The teachers promised to explain who brought them and to tell students that each pair of socks comes with a care letter from a supporter elsewhere in the world. We provide leaders at every distribution point with our information and make sure they understand the cheering nature of our socks.

We continued to Onagawa, where clean-up has proceeded at a fast pace but still has a long way to go.

We distributed socks to an inland high school where students from destroyed high schools near the sea now attend. This is a typical arrangement in and around the disaster zone. To avoid swamping any one school with too many new students, the student body from a destroyed school is divided among several intact schools. While this is sad for friends who end up separated, it’s unavoidable given the number of people involved.

We distributed to children attending school near the place where we heard back on April 10 the story of the man who wears his wife’s ring. Beside the warehouse storing goods for the main shelter, grade-school children still attend class. Stu captured our distribution well.

This is an on-site mail service truck:

and this is the way survivors make phone calls and get online:

Below a nearby high school where we distributed to some students and left socks and letters for others, our area guide for the afternoon, Mr. Sato, showed us the remains of his home.

He now lives in the shelter near the grade-school children we visited a short while before. It’s a testament to the resilience of the survivors that many of the people helping others lost just as much on March 11 as did the people they help. From his small mat in the shelter, Mr. Sato makes arrangements for aid groups to help other people in his shelter and in other shelters as well. He was happy to find flowers blooming where his home once stood, and pointed them out to us.

I walked around the rubble of his neighborhood after hearing his story, and chanced upon an elderly woman moving awkwardly along a street. She suffered a limp as if hobbling on stilts strapped below both knees, threatening to burst their straps and buckle to the ground. Her eyes told me she could not see well. Her shaky legs and weak vision left her unprepared for the obstacle course of the disaster zone, but onward she pressed at a determined pace.

She stopped in front of the ruins of an inn, by the looks of it, and steadied herself against a destroyed countertop while surveying the damage. Her head scanned from side to side and up and down in a slow, sad exploration. I walked over.

“Is this your inn?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said without turning from the scene, “and it was so beautiful. It was called Kanomataya Ryokan. People came from all over to stay here near the sea. This was the front desk. How many years of my life I spent at this front desk welcoming guests.” Her voice trailed off. “I came to get drinks.”

Her name is Mitsue Takahashi, and she’s 78 years old. She lost everything in the tsunami. Her family survived, but everybody moved to Sendai and refuses to return to the remnants of Onagawa. Only Mrs. Takahashi remains, living by herself in the shelter. That day, she decided to return to her inn to retrieve some bottled drinks she remembered leaving on the second floor.

Shufang joined us, and all three of us went upstairs to get the drinks.

My heart sank when I saw the modest trove she’d come to collect. For a scattering of ordinary bottled drinks now spackled in tsunami mud, she’d hiked down the hill and through the wreckage by herself.

She prepared to load them into her backpack, but Shufang and I offered to help her with them. “In fact,” I said, “we’ll give you some fresh socks and a ride back to the shelter, too.” She said that would be a big help.

After we returned to Sano, Shufang researched Mrs. Takahashi’s Inn, Kanomataya Ryokan, and found at Panoramio the following photo of it intact:

Here’s how it looks now:

As we exited the inn, Mrs. Takahashi continued her story to the point of breaking down anew. By that time, our entire group had gathered around her. She dabbed her eyes. “I shouldn’t be doing this at my age,” she said. “And I shouldn’t be alone. I didn’t want to be alone.” Such sadness is contagious.

Stu photographed us walking Mrs. Takahashi to our van, and helping her choose the right socks and letters to brighten her day.

We drove back up the hill to wash Mrs. Takahashi’s drink bottles and take them to her sleeping area in the shelter.

She asked if we would return to her shelter to distribute socks to other survivors there. We checked our appointments and inventory and figured out that with a few adjustments we could pull it off. Naoko and I talked with the shelter manager to book an on-the-fly distribution, then we set off to the next location, a school converted to a shelter for elderly survivors. We set up in the gym. More of Stu’s handiwork:

On our way back to Mrs. Takahashi’s shelter, a boy waved and called out to us on the street. “Socks for Japan!” he cried. “I got these from you at school today! Thank you!”

Naoko told me later that the boy’s happiness at having received our socks was one of her favorite moments of the trip. I knew what she meant. Just the tiniest confirmation that we’re doing something good energizes us for days. On the charge from that boy, we drove back into the disaster zone, bound for Mrs. Takahashi’s shelter. We took photos of damage and clean-up around the Onagawa Station area.

These are my photos:

These are Joe’s photos:

These are Stu’s photos:

Who do you suppose is the photojournalist?

We continued to Mrs. Takahashi’s shelter and embarked on putting socks and letters into outstretched hands, with the help of people living there.

Outside the main shelter in the gymnasium, we distributed to people in the lobby after they’d received food for the night.

Stu’s camera and gallery of photos proved popular among the children.

Here’s the shot he took of the girl shown above:

Just before we moved the van to our next stop at a tent town, a woman and her baby rushed over to ask for socks. Joe snapped the moment we told them that of course they could have some and, yes, we even brought baby sizes.

Our last stop of the day was a tent town down the hill from Mrs. Takahashi’s shelter. Families living there are ones who could not get space in proper shelters and lived the first few days — weeks in some cases — in their cars. Finally, the military offered to erect sturdy tents for them to use instead.

Life is hard there, but people are cheerful.

On our way home, we passed through more damage as the sun went down. The amount of destruction in all directions makes it hard to believe nearly three months have passed since March 11.

We shined the headlights of our van across part of Onagawa’s former downtown. Stu and I each took a shot of the scene, the last we could manage in the waning light.

At 2 am, we arrived back at Sunroute Sano, one of the two hotels near our base where we’ve arranged discounts for remote volunteers. Exhausted but satisfied after distributing 6,376 pairs of socks that day, we called it a night.

Thank-you to Joe, Shufang, and Stu for preparing socks and joining this distribution, and to all of the volunteers who’ve traveled from far away to help us help Japan: Adrian, Dan, Jose, Hashim, Miyako, Roger, Shanta, and Yuya. Most of their reports are not yet written. Other volunteers are on their way as you read this. If you’d like to join us in Sano, please visit our info page.

From a cafe in Penang, Stu wrote yesterday that it was “great to work with you” and that “the day with Socks for Japan was my trip highlight so far.”

After she returned to Singapore last weekend, Shufang sent us an affecting note:

Thank you for the unique and meaningful experience in volunteering for Socks for Japan. I love it so much and I learned so much from you guys.

While I was spending a day wandering around Tokyo, the contrasting images of the barren lands of Onagawa kept resurfacing. The sight of people wearing donated clothes in the shelter, against the well-clothed city people on a Sunday shopping trip just a seven-hour drive away on the same soil, makes me think about and cherish even more my blessed life in Singapore.

I also couldn’t help drawing comparisons between Tokyo and Sano. Sano is a beautiful and peaceful place with every comfort you would need. I’ll definitely return to visit and celebrate the recovery of your unfortunate neighbors.

We look forward to that day. In the meantime, with Joe back in Kansas, Shufang back in Singapore, and Stu traveling through Malaysia, Socks for Japan presses on.

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  1. Posted November 2, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    I don’t suppose Stu is still in Malaysia?

    • Posted November 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      Not anymore, I’m afraid. He’s an exceptional photographer and a nice guy — I’m sure we’ll see more of his work in the future.

      • Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        What a pity! I would have loved to host him and learn from his experience too, since this project is something close to our hearts. Due to my inability to be at the actual site, it would have been so valuable to live it through him. If you ever have any volunteers coming my way, do remind them to look me up. Angels are always welcomed.
        All the best with your latest phase of socks delivery.

  2. Nicole Kerschberg
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    My students wanted to send you socks in May, there was a japanese student in the class and we wanted to help her think about something positive and helpful because her first comment were that she was far and could do nothing. So I told the class I would match whatever they brought, we made a letter ( Kaori helped) took pictures of the class holding up socks, typed in their e mail, and they brought 72 pairs of socks so I had to buy 72 as promised ! :). We packed the socks at my house and I mailed them. I have not heard a word since and wonder if you got the package ( a large cardboard box). I know this seems a bit futile but I would like to be able to say something positive ( and concrete) to my students about a new year and helping others.
    Nicole Kerschberg , Northern Virginia Community College
    Fairfax, Virginia

    • Posted January 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry you never heard a word since sending your socks. We’re caught up on sending confirmations from that long ago. Possible reasons for not receiving a note from us include:

      No email address anywhere on the box.
      Spam filter problems.
      It was lost in transit.

      So far, we haven’t had a single confirmed loss in transit so that seems unlikely, and I show no record of sending a note to your email address. Thus, I’m guessing that you did not include your email address on the box. Do you remember?

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